‘I’m not comfortable with this:’ Sapelo Island residents frustrated after zoning ordinance is approved

Published: Sep. 13, 2023 at 5:49 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 13, 2023 at 6:18 PM EDT
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MCINTOSH COUNTY, Ga. (WTOC) - A community is left wondering what happens next after a new ordinance passed Tuesday night in McIntosh County.

The zoning ordinance allows for larger homes to be built in a Gullah Geechee community known as Hog Hammock on Sapelo Island.

“It’s my home. So, it’s very important. I don’t have anywhere else, I’m retired now, so I’m back home,” said Merden Hall, who lives on Sapelo Island.

Merden Hall, who asked not to be on camera, has lived on Sapelo his whole life. He says he’s worried about the sizes of homes now allowed on the island.

“I’m not comfortable with this. They approved the 3,000 square feet, that’s the only thing I disapprove of, because that’s going to raise property taxes.”

The new ordinance now allows for homes to be 3,000 square feet. Previously that number was 1,400 square feet.

The final ordinance does add back a clause regarding the history of Hog Hammock the commission considered removing– that the “community has unique needs in regards to its historic resources, traditional patterns for development, threat from land speculators and housing forms.”

Still, Commissioner Roger Lotson, who voted against the ordinance, says he still doesn’t support it.

“While I was trying to protect the culture and the history, and keep the land in the descendants’ hand, the other thing I was trying to do as a county commissioner, is to protect the county against the negative publicity, and all the consequences that go along with it,” said Commissioner Lotson.

Now, advocacy groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center are eyeing potential litigation—if that’s what Sapelo residents want. They have 30 days to appeal the decision in McIntosh County Court.

“We know what the legal grounds for a challenge would be. We know that the complaint will outline due process violations. The key is, naming the remedy, what is the fix this community wants? And that’s not ours to say,” said Crystal Mcelrath, with Southern Poverty Law Center.

However, if a lawsuit is filed – it would put the current ordinance on pause until it gets figured out in court.

Georgia state Rep. Buddy Deloach’s area includes Sapelo Island. He says he doesn’t expect any statewide legislation to come out of this issue.

“I believe if you left this issue to the local folks, and kept these outsiders from interfering, the people of McIntosh County would sit down together and work out this issue to everybody’s satisfaction,” said Rep. DeLoach.

Meanwhile, Sapelo residents say they’re hoping for common ground.

“My hopes moving forward is that things will get better. We’ll just have to wait and see if that happens.”

Members of the Southern Poverty Law Center say they’ll be representing Sapelo Island residents, if any of this results in litigation.